Film reviews: The Roads Not Taken chooses a curiously circuitous route

Salma Hayek and Javier Bardem in The Roads Not Taken
Damon Smith

DEMENTIA is a cruel, heartless thief. It robs victims of their sense of identity and dignity while simultaneously stealing precious final moments from family and friends, who stare into the eyes of the people they love and are met with confusion and abject fear rather than warmth and recognition.

London-born film-maker Sally Potter has a deep personal connection to the syndrome. She nursed her younger brother Nic, a musician and composer who was a bass guitarist for rock group Van der Graaf Generator, when he displayed early onset dementia until his death from pneumonia in 2013 aged 61.

The film-maker's experience drip-feeds into the eddying emotions of The Roads Not Taken, an intentionally disorienting drama about the relationship between a daughter and her scholarly father, who is slowly being consumed by the choking fog of dementia.

Curiously, writer-director Potter keeps us perpetually at arm's lengths from the characters and their anguish, offering us fragmented glimpses at a sun-bathed past and colour-bleached present that fail to coalesce into a richly detailed study of a broken family at tipping point.

Potter's most personal film may be her most frustratingly impersonal in its artful execution.

Molly (Elle Fanning) races across New York City in a taxi to spend the day with her father Leo (Javier Bardem) and shepherd him to appointments with a dentist and an optician.

The middle-aged patriarch is trapped for extended periods inside the prison of his mind and fails to answer the door to his nurse Xenia (Branka Katic).

When Molly finally gains access to the cramped apartment, which is located beside elevated subway train tracks, she remains a stranger to dishevelled and discombobulated Leo.

With considerable patience and effort, Molly and Leo make both appointments and an unwelcome trip to the ER, where acid-tongued ex-wife Rita (Laura Linney) makes a brief appearance.

“Why does everyone refer to Dad as ‘he', as if he's not here?” despairs Molly.

“Well is he?” coldly responds Rita, compelling her crestfallen daughter to contemplate the harsh reality of the situation.

Meanwhile, Leo leafs through pages of his memory scrapbook, recalling emotionally bruising times with his first love Dolores (Salma Hayek) and a chance encounter with a pretty tourist called Anni (Milena Tscharntke).

The Roads Not Taken shuffles between polished slivers of Leo's past and present without any profound sense of purpose.

Fanning and Bardem are mesmerising, including one beautifully crafted interlude in a bathroom that mines soothing humour from distress.

Potter stubbornly refuses to take the well-trodden path to our hearts, preferring a more circuitous route that only leads to frustration on and off screen.

THE ROADS NOT TAKEN (15, 85 mins) Drama/Romance. Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek, Laura Linney, Branka Katic, Milena Tscharntke. Director: Sally Potter

RATING: 5/10

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